Monday, October 26, 2020

The different types of polyphonic singing 4: contrapuntal polyphony

Joseph Jordania has outlined nine different types of polyphonic singing in his book Choral singing in human evolution.


I will be working through each type trying to give a simplified explanation and some musical examples. This week it’s contrapuntal polyphony.

Not every culture has polyphonic or multi-part singing. When they do, it can take many different forms.

In part 1, I wrote about parallel polyphony.

In part 2, I wrote about drone polyphony.

In part 3, I wrote about canonic polyphony.

contrapuntal polyphony

This is also referred to as “free polyphony”. The idea is that each vocal part is singing something independently from each other. This is not strictly the case though as the parts are never truly independent since the singers must listen very carefully to each other. A better way of describing contrapuntal polyphony would be to say that there is no hierarchy of parts, each vocal part is as important as the others. Rather than being independent, this polyphonic style is egalitarian.

Outside traditional polyphony, the most common example of this type is the quodlibet (sometimes called a ‘mash up’) where each part sings a completely different song and the whole happens to fit together quite neatly. For example: Swing low sweet chariot, This train is bound for glory, I wanna die easy and Wade in the water. Or Pack up your troubles and Long way to Tipperary.

Traditional contrapuntal polyphony is usually not quite as neat.

two examples of contrapuntal polyphony

1. western Georgia

The best-known tradition from western Georgia is the highly developed tradition of contrapuntal polyphony in Guria.

Here is the Anchiskhati choir singing a field-working song (or Naduri) called Chochkhatura.

There are various types of polyphony at work here including drone polyphony and parallel polyphony. The clearest demonstration of contrapuntal polyphony is from around 5m 30s.

Here is another Gurian song, Khasanbegura, a historical marching song, sung by the Rustavi Ensemble. It is again a mix of types of polyphony, but starts off clearly as contrapuntal polyphony.

2. the Yali of Papua New Guinea

The Indonesian province of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) is home to several mountain peoples from the central highlands who widely use vocal polyphony: the Moni, Dani, and Yali.

These tribes had a habit of fighting, and when going to war they would sing and dance. Now there is no longer war between tribes, every year they gather for a festival that shows their traditions. The name of the festival is the Baliem Valley Festival.

Yali polyphony is based on two- and four-part contrapuntal polyphony. Here is a short video from the Baliem Valley Festival in August 2019.The clearest example is perhaps at 20s: 

Here is a simpler, more imitative example:


next week

In the next post in this series I’ll be looking at ostinato polyphony.


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Chris Rowbury




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